Sound as Cultural Dialogue
by Andrew Kaiser
written for “Music as a Catalyst for Dialogue and Communication”
an International Forum in celebration of the UNESCO International Year for Cultural Raprochement,
28 June 2010
Organized by Melody for Dialogue Among Civilizations Association in collaboration with UNESCO, and the Arts Arena, American University in Paris.
Why is sound such a pervasive and effective mechanism for expressing human meaning. Can we identify a generic morphology of sound structures used cross- culturally? Will the articulation of these ideas lead to a pathway for a new paradigm in cultural activity that is based on truly global gestures? Following a brief discourse on the nature of sound, this paper will present theory for a new paradigm, and will describe significant creative works and research projects influenced by these ideas.
There is not a culture on the globe (within space) or across history (within time) that has not privileged the experience of music. Plato thought sound so important that his Republic would carefully control access to the skills of music production. In the Australian aboriginal creation myth, the sound of the didgeridoo calls forth Dreamtime, the scared condition of evolution. In the contemporary - increasingly globalized - world, we are familiar with music as entertainment, both trivial and profound. Even cultures that do not specifically have a concept of ‘music’ do refer to prayer and chant.
Discourse on the nature of sound
Sonicism is a series of concepts developed to place a systematic some framework around the discussion of human use of sound. Sonicism is a poetic structure, based on observation and inclination, with important ramifications. Sonicism can be defined with the following statements, which this paper will discuss in detail:
- A Waveform in one medium holds meaning in second
- Sound represents the interstice of physiology and cosmology
- Experience is a standing wave, a habit of creation and it’s creature
- Corollary: a Morphology of Human Sound Use
- Directive: towards a newly Global aesthetic (Exospherics)
Sonicism: A Waveform in one medium holds meaning in a second
Music is sound, and sound is a wave formed in air, received by the carefully evolved physiology of our bodies, passed through the nervous system to the brain and then interpreted by the brain and psyche to produce meaning.
Because the sonic object is a wave, it can be represented as a mathematical pattern. Fourier analysis is a technique for representing complex waveforms: Fourier’s mathematical insight was that a complex waveform could be shown as the combination of many simple waveforms (sine waves) at particular frequencies. The analysis would assume that the waveform is unchanged over time: since that is not the case with most waveforms, either in music or in other fields of study, we refer to a secondary analysis known as Short-Time Fourier Transform. STFT establishes ‘windows’ of time and ‘buckets’ of frequency. In any given instant/window, a particular collection of sinusoids can de defined. The next window represents a new collection, and so over time the picture of a piece emerges. The output of this analysis can be graphed, with changes in Frequency and time graphed on the y and x axis. Amplitude is captured on the z-axis with different shades of colors reflecting the ‘loudness’ of each wave.
As an example, the following graph represents a 4 minute sample of Tibetan monks singing in their distinctive bass overtone style:
Additional information can be reviewed by taking a closer look at a 10 second sample:
It is very important to be able extract the experience of the sound from out of the superficial elements that define the cultural apparatus of composition. The following two charts show a 10 minute song from a Humpback Whale, and the 4th movement of Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. It is less important that we know which one is which than it is that we are able to work towards understanding the sonic gesture outside of the producing culture.
Sonicism: sound represents the interstice of physiology and cosmology.
The body is extremely sensitive and receptive to sound waves, and so acts as an intersection between the landscape, and the sky. Our understanding of waveforms as represented in sound provide an understanding of other environmental structures that are also defined as wave structures. This is a horizontal alignment. The medium of sound provides an interface between our consciousness, and the landscape around us...events such as Seismic activity, the movement of the oceans, and atmospheric phenomenon.
The use of sound within human culture also represents a human understanding of larger, electromagnetic structures in the cosmos. The body enlivened by sound is drawn towards the sky. The vertical alignment with the sky provides an archetypal connectivity with consciousness. There is a structuralist model where the sonic object represents our physical nature in relationship to the Gaian landscape and to the cosmic depths.
Sonicism: experience is a standing wave, a habit of creation and it’s creatures.
The sound object also discloses our relationship to temporality. A piece of music emerges from silence, moves through a series of changes, and then eventually ceases, returning to silence. Our own mortality follows this shape: if we are able to extract the sonic gesture from time, we can see a reflection of the relative gestures that comprise our own reality. We can hear generic shapes that match the beating heart, the pulse, breath, perhaps even the microsound of neurons and synapses. Through the spectral analytcal output, we can envision the wave form of a piece of music as an object to be held..or indeed to ‘Behold’.
Maybe this is an understanding of why music is such a profound and generic human activity. We are all restricted in understanding of multiple dimensional objects. In Flatland, the Victorian teacher Edwin Abbot creates a thought model from the perspective of creatures living in a two dimensional world. A rotating 3 dimensional object appears as a 2 dimensional object that moves, changes, disappears and reappears. But that movement is illusion. We perceive a piece of music that begins, ends and noodles around in between those points - that is, until we step outside the moment (after the piece is done) and hold the shape as a kinaesthetic experience. Likewise, we see ourselves existing as the result of conditions manifest in this particular moment alone - when instead we are at least a four dimensional object in a singular totality of time that we perceive as a piece birthing, dying, and living in between those points.
We have become adept at developing technology that allows us to interrogate the sonic phenomenon. A medieval cathedral extends the duration of a human voice, extracting the sound beyond the framework of the human producer. Modern digital sampling can dissect sound into millisecond events, exposing a level of sonic structure that is not apparent to our normal state of listening. All cultures from Neolithic caves through Greek oracles and on demonstrate a spatial relationship to sound that extracts the sound from the original temporal framework. This supports the model provided by spectral analysis, which provides a single object outside of the time domain.
Corollary: Towards a Morphology of Sound.
Beneath the surface areas of a piece of music, or a sonic event, are generic shapes that could be represented as a Morphology of Sound. (I would also include in this the ability to consider sounds of nature and of other species). This is an exceptionally important piece of research, with ramifications in diverse fields such as aesthetics, SETI and a trans-disciplinary approach to culture.
Directive: towards a newly Global music
This ‘Generic’ material will inspire a new form of cultural activity from artists, musicians and thinkers in every community. Imagine a piece where the ‘score’ is the understanding of gestures based on shared modules of meaningful gesture, incorporating sounds from any instruments, from the natural world, and from the electromagnetic spectrum of the cosmos.
The spectral analysis of music has been developed by Robert Cogan, first in his book New Images of Musical Sound (1984). Several composers, especially affiliated with IRCAM, use STFT data to construct their music. Karlheinz Stockhausen proposed a ‘morphology of musical time’, which is very influential in setting the problem domain for a general Sonic Morphology.
R Murry Schafer is a composer who has written on the idea of the Soundscape. In his book The Tuning of the World, (1977), he identifies the physical connection of the human body, and the natural sounds of the environment:
“ Day after day one walks along the strand, listening to the indolent splashing of the wavelets, gauging the gradual crescendo to the heavier treading and on to the organized warfare of the breakers. The mind must be slowed to catch the million transformations of the water, on sand, on shale, against driftwood, against the seawall. Each drop tinkles at a different pitch; each wave sets a different filtering on an inexhaustible supply of white noise. Some sounds are discrete, others continuous. In the sea, the two fuse in primordial unity. The rhythms of the sea are many; infrabiological - for the water changes pitch and timbre faster than the ear’s resolving power to catch it’s changes; biological - the waves rhyme with the patterns of heart and lung and the tides with night and day; and suprabiolgical - the eternal inextinguishable presence of water”
Sonicism represents an intersection of art and science, and resonates with the poetic and scientific milieu of the Romantic period - a time when poets such as Keats and Shelley used scientific metaphors, and where scientists such as Herschel and Davies saw poetry as the preliminary stage of scientific investigation. In his book The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes quotes from Mary Somerville, a pioneer of both the scientific method, and for women in that field. She writes on the ability to abstract meaningful information across different expressions of waves:
“Light, Heat, Sound and the waves of fluid are all subject to the same laws of reflection and indeed their undulatory theories are perfectly similar”
Somerville also notes the importance of human physiology in our perception of wave phenomenon. In this quote, she also comments on the role of consciousness:
“A consciousness of the fallacy of our senses is one of the most important consequences of the study of nature. This study teaches us that no object is seen by us in it’s true place, owing to aberration; that the colours of substances are solely the effects of the action of matter upon light; and that light itself, as well as heat and sound, are not real beings, but modes of action communicated to our perceptions by the nerves. The human frame may therefore be regarded as an elastic system, the different parts of which are capable of vibrating in unison with any number of superposed undulations, all of which have their perfect and independent effect. Here our knowledge ends; the mysterious influence of matter on mind will in all possibility be for ever hid from man”
While Heidegger provides a framework for discussing an unfolding sense of being as expressed through sound, the ideas of a global, shared structure for sonic development is highly influenced by Teilhard de Chardin. The Omega point - the teleologic direction of the cosmos - resonates with the underlying assumptions expressed in the discourse on sound. Furthermore, Chardin has written on the essential nature of the human experience. This has been especially significant in the development of specific art works discussed later in the paper :
“ Humanly speaking the internal passivities of diminishment form the darkest element of the most despairingly useless years of our lives. Some were waiting to pounce on us as we first awoke: natural failings, physical defects, intellectual or moral weaknesses, as a result of which the field of our activities, of our enjoyment of our vision, has been piteously limited since birth. Others were lying in wait for us later on and appeared as suddenly and brutally as an accident or as stealthily as an illness.
All of us one day or another will come to realize, if we have not already done so, that one or other of these sources of disintegration has lodged itself in the very heart of our lives.”
Theoretical models: Deep Signaling and Exospherics
The Deep Space Signaling Group is a group of musicians, visual artists, scientists and philosophers dedicated to exploring the ‘meaningfulness‘ of the cosmos. The group was founded by Lowry Burgess and Andrew Kaiser in 2007 under the sponsorship of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. The group supports individual projects, as well as a focus on developing partnerships between group members and other institutions, individuals and government agencies.
The Deep Space Signaling Group approaches the mythic logic of the Sky to develop new metaphors for engagement and collaboration. The impulse for these projects is aesthetic and creative, global, human and futuristic: a new paradigm for cultural frameworks in art, language, morals, ethics,science, technology, economics and policy which the group has named Exospherics. Exospherics can be articulated as 5 Principles:
- How can artists, humanists and scientists engage the global meaning of outer space for all humanity, including non-space engaged cultures and regions
- The concept and meaning of the heavens is an archetype across all cultures, contemporary and historic.
Archive for the Future
- What are the curatorial imperatives for work that can be as ephemeral as a sub-atomic spark, monumental as Arecibo, ‘Long Now’ as a message to the stars millions of light years away, megalithic as our ancestral earth-calendars? Can we inspire a dedication to documentation and stewardship?
- Can the group produce/extoll/generate open and confident engagement with space-oriented organizations, government agencies, institutions and corporations, leading to a wise and sustainable global body of experience, common practice and policy?
- Can human ecstasy direct technology? Can the fulfillment of basic human instincts towards the sublime provide impetus for ongoing exploration of space?
Network of Engagement
- Can the experience of a group formed across traditional institutional, geo-political and generational divides generate a body of ‘Best Practices’ for Transdisciplinary work that will result in life-long relationships and dedication?
Chronology of important pieces from the Deep Space Signaling Group
June 2010: Andrew Kaiser presents keynote address at the International Forum on Music as a Catalyst for Cultural Dialogue and Communication, sponsored by Melody for Dialogue among Civilizations, the American University in Paris, and UNESCO.
April 2010 Launch of The Moon Arts Group at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon University will take a series of interactive art projects to the Moon in December 2011.
February 2009: Lowry Burgess is invited to present at the Astrobiology Conference hosted by The SETI Institute and sponsored by NASA in Mountain View, Ca. Discussion included the broader meaning of the search for life beyond earth, and included leading astrobiologists, theologians, physicists and artists.
Spring 2009: Lowry Burgess leads the second Space Arts Seminar with trans-disciplinary students from the CMU campus. Andrew Kaiser assists.
October 2008: Andrew Kaiser consults with Squonk Opera for their work, Astrorama, a multimedia production that addresses the human urge to reach into space. Presented as part of the recent Pittsburgh 250 celebration.
April 2008: International Space Station Live Interactive Arts, Humanities and Culture in Space Collaboration, Yuri's Night Bay Area 2008 celebration created by DSSG in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center, the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, College of Fine Arts Carnegie Mellon University, and the Zero Gravity Arts Consortium.
March 2008: Andrew Kaiser, Lowry Burgess and Vashti Germaine collaborate to present music inspired by The Quiet Axis. The event was presented as part of an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
2005: Andrew Kaiser and Doug Vakoch present online exhibit on Extra-Terrestrial Message composition at the San Francisco Exploratorium
May 2005: Andrew Kaiser presents “Voices of the Noosphere”, a concept for electromagnetic art in space at 7th Workshop on Space and the Arts; co-organized by European Space Agency, the O.U.R.S Foundation, and Leonardo/OLATS.
March 2002: Andrew Kaiser presents on music as a source for message composition at the SETI Workshop on Art and Science of Extra-Terretrial Message Composition.
March 1989: “The Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture”, created by Lowry Burgess, is taken into outer space on the space shuttle Discovery. This is the first Non-Scientific payload in NASA history.
The Deep Space Signaling Group is an umbrella for significant activity in many fields. Two active projects that reflect the commitment to Exospherics and trans-cultural/trans-disciplinary work are Voices of the Noosphere and “The Moon Arts Group”, at Carnegie Mellon University.
Voices of the Noosphere
Voices of the Noosphere was first presented by Andrew Kaiser at the 7th Annual Space Art conference, sponsored by Leonardo Journal and the European Space Agency The piece is a sonic sculpture intended both for appreciation by human audition, and for interstellar transmission across electromagnetic frequencies. The source material for Voices from the Noosphere is derived from the radio signals of cosmic phenomena such as pulsars or solar flare activity, combined with the representation of humanity as found in cultural expressions in sound. Voices of the Noosphere explores the idea that research into sound use can derive some generic information about what it is to be fundamentally human. The sound of a didgeridoo is a source sample, because the partials and drones of that instrument seem to map intuitively to the rhythms of the body. Breath, pulse, eye-blinks, synaptic twitches, eat and sleep, birth and death.
This musical, sonic material is combined with data received from radio telescopes directed towards cosmic objects. The corresponding output can either be performed for a human audience, or transmitted outbound into space as a counterpoint to the original astronomical event.
‘Voices of the Noosphere’ installation details
1. Using a live Radio source, the signal becomes the first of ￼two audio inputs. The sample shown here is a sonic representation of a pulsar.
2. The didgeridoo sound will act as a controller, modifying the underlying envelope of the pulsar sound. Note the complex overtones, above the geometric presentation of fundamental drones. The frequency spectrum clearly shows the multi-layered patterns and resonances within this most ancient of instruments.
￼3. Both audio signals will input to a Macintosh computer running SuperCollider and cSound - open source software applications used for powerful sonic manipulation. The output of the code process can be be amplified and played into a performance space: or may be re-broadcast into ‘outer’ space. The installation will present a counterpoint of some cosmic phenomenon and the voice of human consciousness, represented in this case by the didgeridoo.
The Moon Arts Group, at Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University will take a series of interactive art projects to the Moon in December 2011. The artworks will be on board Carnegie Mellon’s lunar rover enterprise in pursuit of the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize. The Moon Arts Group is a project of Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry.
There are many pieces under development by The Moon Arts Group. Specifically influenced by the work of the Deep Space Signaling Group is “Moon Bell”, which will use radio waves, telescopes and emerging computer software to create a sound from the earth to the Moon. The rover will initiate a broadcast-burst that will be received by a radio antenna then reflected back and forth between the earth and the Moon, like the metal ball inside a bell ringing each side of its metal cover. Moon Bell will create an ever-expanding reflected ping that can be heard and shared globally through the Internet.
Composed around the ‘Moon Bell’ will be a series of pieces that are envisioned for dance, orchestra and cross-cultural instrumentation with the theme of “Moon Choreography” - an eclectic ballet that follows the movements of the sun, earth and Moon.”
Other projects will direct the movement of the lander to ‘draw’ anamorphic images on the surface of the moon; to create a ‘Moon Ark’ that will include water in carbon nano-tubes; a ‘Reliquary’ designed as part of the landing platform of the robot; a distillation of fragrance produced by master perfumers around the world; and a time capsule from Earth that could remain undisturbed for many millions of years.
Exospherics is a paradigm for creative thought that is derived from an understanding of the shared use of sound in human culture, calling for a new approach to shared artistic activity. This approach recognizes the interconnection of Human experience on the surface of the Earth, and is oriented towards the Sky as a common mythological archetype. Insights drawn from this work have implications far beyond cultural aesthetics to suggest new policy, ethics, economics, and technology across institutional and geopolitical boundaries.